Assyrian texts

BYU, Vatican Library preserve manuscripts

A collection of rare Christian manuscripts — preserved by BYU in collaboration with the Vatican Library — tell the "lost story" of members of the Assyrian Church of the East.

Kristian Heal of BYU demonstrates the DVD of ancient Syriac Christian documents digitized at the Vatican Library by BYU during a press conference at BYU's Harold B. Lee Library. Bishop Mar Bawai Soro of the Assyrian Church of the East in background. Bishop Soro contacted BYU with the DVD project. March 31, 2004. Photo by Stuart Johnson (Submission date: 03/31/2004)
Kristian Heal of BYU demonstrates the DVD of ancient Syriac Christian documents digitized at the Vatican Library by BYU during a press conference at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library. Bishop Mar Bawai Soro of the Assyrian Church of the East in background. Bishop Soro contacted BYU with the DVD project. March 31, 2004. Photo by Stuart Johnson (Submission date: 03/31/2004) Credit: Photo by Stuart Johnson

Now the texts, some dating to the 5th and 6th centuries, will be available not only to those whose heritage they preserve, but also to scholars worldwide.

Working with the Vatican Library for three years, BYU scholars imaged more than 14,000 pages of texts to produce a digital library of 33 important Syriac Christian manuscripts, which will be available on DVD.

The manuscripts, said Bishop Mar Bawai Soro of the Assyrian Church, contain the essence of his church's liturgies, worship manuals and theologies.

During a recent visit to the BYU campus, Bishop Soro said although his church is small today, the manuscripts "tell of the forgotten glory that our forefathers and foremothers had. In addition, they contain what we believe and hold valuable as teachings and traditions, as doctrine and dogma."

In 1997 — after learning of the highly publicized BYU Dead Sea Scroll project, in which BYU scholars translated and preserved Jewish texts — Bishop Soro contacted the BYU Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts about creating a digital library of Syriac Christian texts.

He asked if a university that is concerned about the protection of religious texts would be interested in another project, recalled Noel Reynolds, executive director of the institute.

Brother Reynolds said the timing of the project was perfect, since there were dramatic advancements in the 1990s in electronic and digital preservation.

"I give credit to Bishop Soro and others he talked to," Brother Reynolds said. "They had the vision that this might be a way of preserving and distributing these important materials."

The newly digitized collection includes unpublished works by early Eastern Christian writers such as Jacob of Serugh, Ephrem the poet and Isaac the Syrian. One oversized 1,000-page manuscript contained 230 separate homilies by different authors.

Most of the manuscripts are from a collection that the Vatican purchased in the 18th Century from an Egyptian monastery. For centuries, Syriac Christian themselves were denied access to the manuscripts, even though the texts relate to their early history.

Working in collaboration with the Vatican Library, BYU scholars image more than 14,000 pages of text to produce a digital library of 33 Syriac Christian manuscripts.
Working in collaboration with the Vatican Library, BYU scholars image more than 14,000 pages of text to produce a digital library of 33 Syriac Christian manuscripts. Credit: Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU

"The Vatican now is very willing to re-offer those manuscripts back to Syriac Christianity," said Bishop Soro. "It is a project that has fulfilled a great need in the Syriac-speaking communities all over the world."

Syriac Christians, who trace their origins back to first-century Mesopotamia, have historically endured political upheaval and persecution. More than 80 percent of the church's written tradition was lost, destroyed or burned during turmoil in the Middle East.

In past decades, many Syriac-speaking Christians fled the Middle East to other areas, losing touch with their ancient traditions, he explained. The BYU imaging project will help those members reconnect with their beliefs and pass their traditions on to their children, Bishop Soro said.

Presenting these ideas to his people will introduce a sense of "humble pride" in them, he said.

He hopes that this pride will trigger a new mindset in his people, a sense that their heritage belongs to them.

"Our people will see this patrimony, this heritage, put in the best medium, the most advanced medium, so that their kids, their teenagers, can look at their tradition with pride and joy and be able to learn themselves and share with the world," he said.

Brother Reynolds said the project is just one example of a larger effort by BYU to digitize and make accessible important and endangered manuscripts from libraries and monasteries around the world.

"It becomes important to understand what happened to early Christianity — what its future might be," he said. "I think Latter-day Saints have a lot of interest in these questions."

A "treasury" manuscript.
A “treasury” manuscript. Credit: Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU
St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican is a focal point in Rome's skyline.
St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican is a focal point in Rome’s skyline. Credit: Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU
Working in the Vatican Libary, BYU scholars image texts, some dating to the 5th and 6th centuries.
Working in the Vatican Libary, BYU scholars image texts, some dating to the 5th and 6th centuries. Credit: Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU
Thirteenth century liturgical text, imaged by BYU, represents the Melkite religious tradition, a group of Syriac-speaking Catholics.
Thirteenth century liturgical text, imaged by BYU, represents the Melkite religious tradition, a group of Syriac-speaking Catholics. Credit: Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU

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